J. Gresham Machen is best known for his battle against theological liberalism in the northern Presbyterian church in the US (the PCUSA), first founding a seminary (in 1929) and then an independent missions agency in 1933.

This latter action in particular was swiftly condemned by his denomination, and after a couple years of trials and appeals, he was defrocked in 1936. Not long after, he founded a new denomination – the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

I'd like to know if it's documented anywhere that Machen seriously considered joining another Presbyterian body in the US prior to creating the OPC. At the time, there weren't nearly as many Presbyterian options, but others did exist, such as the PCUS (in the South), the ARP, and the RPCNA.

Do we have any evidence, particularly from his writings, that Machen considered joining another Presbyterian denomination instead of founding a new one?

  • This is a footnote in the book 'The Story of Christian Theology' by Roger E. Olson, for chapter 33: "A fascinating account of Machen's relationship with fundamentalism is contained in D.G. Hart, 'Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America' (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994). Hart points out the ironies of that relationship." I do not know if there is anything in Hart's book that would answer your question but mention it in case it turns out to be useful.
    – Anne
    Dec 27, 2019 at 15:46

1 Answer 1


He may have considered joining an existing Presbyterian group before founding the Orthodox Presbyterian Church - it would be surprising if he had not - but if he never wrote about such thoughts, it will be almost impossible to answer this question. Well, not unless he did write something along the lines of, 'Having been defrocked in 1936, I now have no choice but to found a new denomination.' (And bear in mind that he died in 1937.) From that we might suppose he had been considering joining an existing group, but being defrocked put paid to such considerations. Yet that is only supposition.

However, there is something he wrote in his book (below) that indicates a great resistance to joining any group that did not fully subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which he took to be formed on the basis of the binding authority of Holy Scripture. This would mean that if the Presbyterian denominations you mentioned - the PCUS (in the South), the ARP, and the RPCNA - did not hold firmly to that particular Confession, the Professor would have been most unlikely to have considered them. This is what he wrote about American Presbyterianism in its moving away from the binding authority of Holy Scripture:

"...a man who solemnly accepts that system of doctrine [viz. the Westminster Confession] cannot at the same time be an advocate of a non-doctrinal religion which regards as a trifling thing that which is the very sum and substance of the Confession and the very centre and core of the Bible upon which it is based."

"The matter may be made plain by an illustration from secular life. Suppose in a political campaign in America there be formed a Democratic Club for the purpose of furthering the cause of the Democratic Party. Suppose there are certain other citizens who are opposed to the tenets of the Democratic Club, and in opposition desire to support the Republican Party. What is the honest way for them to accomplish this purpose? Plainly, it is simply the formation of a Republican Club which shall carry on propaganda in favour of Republican principles. But suppose instead of pursuing this simple course of action, the advocates of Republican principles should conceive the notion of making a declaration of conformity to Democratic principles, thus gaining entrance into an anti-Democratic propaganda. That plan might be ingenious. But would it be honest? Yet it is exactly such a plan which is adopted by advocates of a non-doctrinal religion who by subscription to a creed gained an entrance into the ministry of doctrinal or evangelical Churches." Christianity and Liberalism, p.169, J.G. Machen (as quoted in The Heritage of our Fathers, p.86, G.N.M. Collins, The Knox Press, 1974)

This is by no means conclusive, but it appears to be a conclusion he arrived at which, while not ruling out Machen considering joining other Presbyterian denominations, would mitigate against supposing that he seriously would join one that did not hold utterly to the binding authority of Holy Scripture as expressed in the Westminster Confession.

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